The California Senate approved of a bill that would allow over 10 million employees in the state to receive up to two weeks of paid time off for COVID-19 related illness and treatment.
Senate Bill 95, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), would only give the two weeks off for employees in businesses with 25 or more employees. COVID-19 time off, which may apply to getting tested, getting vaccinated, exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms, caring for children at home due to COVID-19, or other similar situations.
SB 95 would retroactively be set to last from January 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021, meaning that employers may have to pay employees for time taken off already. However, companies would ultimately not have to pay the special paid time off themselves, as a federal payroll tax credit would be applied, giving employers up to $511 per day for each employee out under sick leave. However, the companies that can receive the credit will need 500 or more employees to qualify.
Credit can also be limited, with companies only receiving up to $200 per day for employees staying home to take care of family members.
Senator Skinner wrote the bill to ensure that proper time off is being taken by employees, some of whom may not have adequate time off to properly deal with COVID-19 and COVID-19 related activities.
“The absolutely best way to contain the spread (of the virus), beyond the fact of wearing masks as we are and keeping our distance, is to ensure people who have COVID or who are asymptomatic with COVID are not going to work,” said Senator Skinner.
However, many business leaders and lawmakers expressed their opposition to the bill before the Assembly and Senate votes this week, noting that businesses are still struggling to come back despite counties lowering their reopening tiers to include more business and commerce. Many called the two weeks of paid sick leave too much of an added cost for business owners unable to receive the tax credit, while others pointed out that employers who did not track sick leave reasons will have a difficult time finding the correct number of days taken off so far – a matter which could cost small businesses potentially thousands of dollars.
“At a time when California is flush with cash, policymakers should not ask employers to become the state’s social safety net,” explained executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce Jennifer Barrera on Thursday.
Dangers of SB 95, Bill supporters note how bill will hurt small businesses
Others pointed out potential dangers of the bill.
“We’re not through the woods on COVID yet,” explained Damian Hill, a researcher in Illinois who has tracked average days off taken for COVID-19 related reasons in 11 states since March 2020. “California is giving 9 months. Some say that’s too generous, some not enough. But what we’ve been seeing is that people have been taking sick leave days more as mental health days rather than because of COVID, just because of all the added stress that has built up due to work from home restrictions, kids staying home, worries over contraction, worries over family members contracting, shutdowns, and much more.
“California is once again close to passing a bill that allows people to take the days off, but in a way that’s ‘use them or lose them.’ You don’t really have to prove anything. It can be as simple as saying ‘My kids need help with school because it’s an at-home learning day’ and getting them time off, even if they don’t need help.”
“Essentially these can be seen as free days off. This is more of a Midwest thing, but they’ll be treated as snow days by some. You know, a lot of workers won’t do that sort of thing, but there are some who may simply not want to work, claim COVID, and get the day off. In the end it is not hurting employees, as they’re getting paid, and it’s not dinging the state budget, since they aren’t paying for the extra two weeks. It’s employers, already hit hard employers. And it makes less sense now with vaccinations across the country shooting up in numbers.”
Lawmakers also noted their displeasure at SB 95, with Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) quoted as saying “This is a horrible, horrible piece of legislation.”
While small businesses have been given some relief in recent months in California, including $2 billion in grants last month, as well as a possible $2.3 billion in tax breaks that are currently being negotiated, SB 95 ultimately does not tie in state funding or other non-federal business relief.
While ultimately voting for the bill, many Democrats did note of the increased burdens on small businesses that the bill would bring, while others noted that lower-paying workers and businesses with under 25 employers were not covered by the bill.
“To add more burdens to small businesses, this is another big blow right now and so I was torn on this,” said Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine) after voting on Thursday. “On the other hand, it is good policy. We don’t want sick workers coming into work or facing that tough decision between missing a paycheck and losing their jobs.”
Overall, the Senate voted 29-8 across strict party lines in favor of the bill.
SB 95 will now head to Governor Gavin Newsom, who is widely expected to sign the bill into law soon.
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